Friday, April 17, 2009

Dark Roasted Weirdsville

Here we go again: another article for the always-great Dark Roasted Blend. This time it's about early monorails. Enjoy!

Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages, allow me to present to you, for your amusement and edification, one of the strangest, weirdest, and most counter-intuitive ways of getting from point A to point B: the monorail.

While the concept of possibly traveling across a city, and/or across the landscape, on monorails has become close to acceptable these days – or even grudgingly acceptable -- back in its infancy visionary proponents of this form of transportation instead saw a future where everyone, everywhere, moved in gleaming high-tech splendor balanced on a single rail.

One of those first dreamers was Henry Palmer, whose creations worked the docks of London for many years – and even carried quite a few passengers. Terrified of falling over, to be sure, but passengers nonetheless. Other inventors, like Ivan Elmanov in Russia and Charles Lartigue, the French Engineer, saw their dreams made in iron and steel and even – in the case of Lartigue – were able to ride their visions and see them as, abet short-lived, successes.

To be fair, some of these early designs were more thought-out than you might think – though the actual engineering was naturally a bit primitive. Some designs used a single rail for both balance as well as power (either balanced by a gyroscope or hanging by an overhead support), while others kind of ‘cheated’ by having a single rain for balance and then a second wheel off to the side for propulsion.

While the early 20th century didn’t see a lot of huge developments in one-rail trains – except for here or there earnest experiments and limited uses – the 1920s and 30s were a boom year for the monorail in the pages of science fiction and techno-gee-whiz magazines like Popular Science and Modern Mechanix.

For some reason the brilliant artist of these and other magazines always saw the future as balancing on one rail. Their images are bold and daring, a plastic … or more like bakelite … glowing and chrome gleaming tomorrow of pipe-smoking, hat-wearing business men and balloon-toting and picnic basket-carrying children and wives zipping across meticulously manicured landscapes at the astounding speeds of 300 miles per hour.

Dreaming along similar Tomorrowland vistas, Disney’s imagineers adopted the monorail as the futuristic way of traveling around their famous amusement park. Other engineers looked to this high-speed, or at least futuristic, way of travel as well, getting their visionary monorail systems installed in Japan (naturally), Seattle and a few other rare urban experiments.

It’s ironic that a system put in place – sometimes -- as a way to bring the future into the backward world of today would now be seen as a realistic future mass transit alternative – all because of magnets.

Well, Maglev to be precise: “magnetic levitation” to you and I. The principle is simple: put the plus pole of a magnet to the plus pole of another magnet (or negative to negative) and you get resistance, that fun little ‘repulsion’ that’s delighted kids since magnets were first discovered.

While this propulsion method was often included in those chrome and bakelite futures of one-railed, high-speed trains it wasn’t until recently that the idea of using magnetic levitation has been taken seriously as a mass transit alternative. It seems that one of the best ways of using Maglev is as the lift for a monorail system – as test beds around the world have proven. Proven so well in fact that Maglev trains hold the current ‘fast train” record at Modern Mechanix, Popular Science astounding speeds of 361 miles per hour.

It’s fun to look back at those old pulp dreams of tomorrow, at their bulbous machines and glowing tube control panels, their mountain-sized turbines and silo-proportioned engine cylinders and barely suppress a superior smirk at how they – charmingly, to be sure – got it so wrong, but, who knows, maybe sometime soon we’ll be doing that smirking while we silently blast across our own carefully maintained landscape as passengers in 300+ miles per hour, magnetically supported, one-rail trains.

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